In our regular end-of-the-year reflection, Sensors & Systems looks back over the past 12 months to come up with the top developments of 2015 that will have strong implications for geospatial industry growth and diversity in the coming years. Making the list are technology disruptions, acquisitions, modeling frameworks, mapping efforts and global change.
1. Google’s Mapping Effort Gets to Ten Years and Is Retooled — Early this year Google and their mapping efforts Google Maps and Google Earth eclipsed the ten-year mark. At the same time, they saw a number of high-profile mapping people leave and they decided to mothball their Google Earth Enterprise effort. The company has a lot of very interesting mapping assets however, and clearly mapping provides the platform for so much of what they do from local search to autonomous vehicles. We are watching and waiting for their next move.
2. Uber Acquires Map Talent — The international transportation network company, powered by a smartphone app and empowered by cloud-based technology, is hiring many mapping people. Uber hired Brian McClendon who ran Google’s mapping effort, and they recently hired Manik Bupta who had a product role at Google Maps. It will be interesting to see what technology comes from this mapping and transportation technology pairing.
3. Nokia Sells Here to Automobile Consortium — The sale of Nokia’s Here maps unit to the automaker consortium of Audi, BMW and Mercedes for $3 Billion, is another notable pairing of maps and transportation. The automakers relate the importance of precision maps for the future of mobility. The lidar sensors that Here has been using provide a very accurate map that we have yet to see in any sort of online mapping application. That may never be the end goal though as with this precision, they’re obviously interested for safety and navigation aspects of autonomous vehicles.
4. Significant Advancements in Virtual Reality — The emergence of high-resolution goggle-type headsets (Oculus Rift and Microsoft’s Hololens, among others) means that virtual reality is making leaps toward our living rooms. The likely first foray will be gaming and entertainment applications, but serious commercial platforms to extend virtual reality toward augmented reality are also coming online, such as the infrastructure-oriented DAQRI helmet. These empowering and immersive new devices will be huge consumers of maps and models, and it will be fascinating to see how they pair the two.
5. Smallsats Continue to Proliferate — The number of Silicon Valley-based smallsat providers just got bigger with the addition of Hera Systems. This newest player has plans for affordable high-resolution imagery with a constellation of nine one-meter resolution satellites in October 2016 with plans to expand to 48 satellites with imaging technology licensed from NASA. This joins Planet Labs and Google SkyBox as one more credible player that will drive down imagery cost and increase the exploitation of imagery insight, with a focus on information and analytics.
6. Hexagon Geospatial Launches Smart M.App — Hexagon’s cloud-powered geospatial data platform combines mapping capability with geospatial data to create the means to make sense of our dynamically changing world. The emphasis on solving problems is notable as the prior iteration as Intergraph was focused on solutions. Now that Hexagon Geospatial has retooled as a strong platform that is both powerful and easier to use, it’s back to applications and the value proposition of smart maps.
7. Airbus Acquires High-Altitude Sensing Platform — The commercialization of high-altitude unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) are adding a whole new persistent surveillance platform. These aircraft are often referred to as atmospheric satellites because they travel at 60,000 feet above the Earth. They are lightweight and solar powered and can stay aloft for months, which makes for very interesting application possibilities. They could be very powerful for forest fire detection for instance, where a thermal camera and their wide area persistent surveillance ability to cover broad ground would be light years ahead of the current detection capability. Other applications such as a commercialized Gorgon Stare toward our cities are quite creepy to consider, but we gave away our interest in privacy long ago.
8. FAA Progresses UAS Acceptance — This year saw a very large number of Section 333 exemptions that allow for operators to pursue commercial applications of UAS platforms. Many of these exemptions went to established entities in the airborne and geospatial solutions market, with 2,557 petitions granted to date. With this number of operators, there are some very interesting applications and case studies coming online for such things as monitoring marine protected areas, pinpointing the causes of power outages and even for bridge inspections.
9. The National Ecological Observatories Network (NEON) Hits Implementation Snags — The exciting NEON project that will monitor more than 20 different ecosystems across the United States is not doing well on its implementation timeline or budget. Cost and time overruns had put the overseeing company NEON, Inc. under congressional scrutiny, and just last week the NSF terminated the company’s contract. This means that NSF is looking for a partner with experience on large and complex projects to take over, and a multinational engineering company would be a great fit.
10. COP21 Includes Significant Forest Focus — The COP21 climate change agreement that was agreed upon in Paris has a significant focus on the value of forests. The agreement targets keeping the increase of global average temperature below 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels. The reduction of emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+) looks to conservation and sustainable forest management. Earth observation and geospatial technologies will be a key component of this monitoring effort, and a key ingredient to greater understanding of our forests and other carbon capturing environments.